“And, so I sez, you can’t park that thing there! It’s already rotting!” The old woman chortled to herself. “ ’Course, it wouldn’t go anywhere. The critter had already given up the ghost. Get it?”
Parsons offered her a wintry smile. He straightened a pile of plastic crates through which he had searched meticulously for the missing data crystal and dismissed as potential hiding places. He had gleaned all the information from the old woman that he felt was possible to glean. She knew nothing beyond her brief to deliver the object to him, but was putting off the moment as long as she possibly could. She was lonely, felt separated from the circle of covert operatives in which she had long enjoyed membership, and saw him as a link to her past. If he pressed her and demanded the crystal, she might lose it or destroy it deliberately. He had no choice but to continue as a sounding board and unpaid organizer, as long as she pleased to delay him. He felt that it was safe to continue, at least for the time being. Lord Thomas was occupied at the banquet where he was being lionized by the local militia. If Parsons were needed, the viewpad at his hip would signal him.
Parsons admitted that in the hours he had been in the fuel depot, the storage room was already fifty percent organized to a professional standard, where it had been chaotic before. He also had no doubt that the moment he left she would rearrange it to chaos again, so that no one would easily be able to discover its contents. Secrecy was one of her few resources. It was not a worthless one: even determined spies often gave up a search if the odds were too greatly balanced against a swift removal.
“So, what do you hear from the central office?” the old woman asked again, as she had every few minutes when the front office was empty of customers.
“Nothing much,” Parsons assured her as he had over and over. “There’s been a shakeup.” That was safe to say, even if anyone had been listening. A shakeup was always predicted or had just occurred. It changed little in the way the service ran. She nodded her head sagely.
Parsons continued sorting with an infinity of patience, knowing that rushing his idiosyncratic connection would not work. She would rather destroy the precious information than pass it along under force. Parsons had dealt with plenty like her over the course of years. There was time. His charge was the center of attention at a banquet in his honor, with plenty of people to listen to his stories and, Nature give him patience, that wretched collection of images and videos that he loved to show off. Including the images that the boy had had hidden in various nooks and crannies in his equipment of which that he thought Parsons was unaware. Since Parsons had been directly involved on the design of five of these secure storage devices for the service, there was nothing of moment he did not know about retrieval of information from them. Still, no harm would really be done by the images that he had permitted Lord Thomas to retain. If any embarrassment was due from them, it was fleeting. The young man had the sense not to make use of them for profit or to ruin the lives of those whose images he had captured. Lord Thomas possessed consideration and good sense, though he seldom made use of the latter.
“Well,” the old woman said, as Parsons completed the sixth stack of crates, “mebbe I remember where I stuck the thing. It might be right in there.” She stood up and massaged her back.
She opened the electrical systems panel in the wall. With the turn of a hidden knob, the frame containing the circuitry sprang out on a hinge. Parsons held his distance, not wishing to offend her by looming over her shoulder, even though his impatience was at a fever pitch.
“They’ve got guns!” A panicked shout erupted through the door. Parsons peered out of the shop toward the main street. A large crowd of terrified beings of all ages and species fled from the commercial section. The old woman slammed her cache shut and stalked out into the midst of the tumult. Parsons followed more cautiously, unclipping his personal weapon from the hidden sheath.
“You!” the depot owner bellowed, grabbing for the handle of a nanibot rolling down the road. It swung around to face her, the lens of its video pickup enlarged. A fully charged laser pistol rose on the stalk from its command center. “Oh, put that thing away! What in black holes is going on?”
The nani’s charge, six months or younger by the sound of the hysterical cries issuing from its interior, was awake and angry.
“I must tend the child!”
“I order you to relate information,” the old woman said, her manner snapping from the casual patois of the space station to that of a figure of authority. Parsons had a fleeting glimpse of how effective she must once have been in the service. “I require an account of the last twenty minutes. That should about do it, right, honey?” she asked Parsons.
“I would believe so,” he agreed mildly.
She raised an eyebrow, and he realized he had not spoken in the unschooled manner he had affected in her presence. Both of their covers were blown. Luckily no one was there to observe it but an upset LAI with a crying baby on board. She had calculated her statement correctly. When operated in a certain fashion, the LAIs stopped their artificial personalities and downloaded data as required.
“A crew involved in a brawl with the local militia opened fire within Oatmeal and Son, northwards along the road one hundred forty meters,” the nanibot responded obediently. “Laser weapons.”
“What?” the old woman asked. “Guns? How did they get them past security? I’m going to toast those baby-asses over a fire made of their own uniforms! The militia is involved, you say?”
“The militia is in the hotel,” Parsons corrected her. “They are holding a celebration dinner.”
“Uniformed beings, then, in a brawl with a crew from a visiting ship,” the nanibot said. “They woke the baby! She has had an ear infection. I brought her to Oatmeal and Son because she enjoys the décor and the nutritionally complete orange-flavored drink. It will take much time to soothe her to sleep. Would you care to see pictures of her? Would you?” The mechanical voice sounded slightly hysterical, as if it needed some soothing of its own.
“I’ll look at ’em,” the old woman said to Parsons. “You go see. Sounds like you’re involved. By the way, here.” She reached into a pocket of her coveralls and pulled out a blue data crystal the size of her little finger. She gave him a sheepish little smile. “Thanks for the cleanup. And the company. Guess you can tell I miss the old times.”
Parsons decided that grace would be a better reply than acrimony. “It was my pleasure,” he said. He turned and did a quick march through the oncoming mob in the direction indicated by the nanibot, who was already spooling images of the baby girl for the depot owner.
When he reached the restaurant, he observed that there had indeed been some kind of armed altercation. The main door had been forced ajar. Bubbled and blackened streaks upon its inner surface showed that energy weapons had been discharged against it. The walls bore similar damage. The floor was awash with soda and coffee, and heaps of cooked food on the floor had been trampled into topographical forms by the passage of many feet, most of them booted. Most of them work boots of a common type, nearly all the same maker. Two sets of magnetic boots, as would be standard parts of armor suits. And a pair with no manufacturer’s logo on the sole—none needed, since Parsons knew too well they had been made by hand for a particular pair of feet. But where were those feet? The rear door of the restaurant opened onto a black and echoing hallway. Cleanerbots were already rumbling through it, followed by a stout man with red hair and a forlorn expression.
“Are you Mr. Oatmeal?” Parsons asked him. “What happened?”
“Colonel Oatmeal, retired,” the redhaired man said. “And all hell broke loose. Who’s going to pay for all this?”
“Who did this?”
“I don’t know. It all happened so fast. Pretty typical dinner hour. My servers were bringing out orders. Customers pouring in. Then, blam blam blam!”
“Who was involved in, er, the blamming?” Parsons asked.
The man eyed his humble coverall askance. “You aren’t station security.”
Parsons found the nearest code reader used for verifying credit chits. He pulled back his sleeve and held his forearm over the scanner. The string of numerals that appeared on the small screen made the restauranteur’s eyebrows go up. His reserve thawed at once.
“Looked like some of the station volunteers. Took on a bunch of spacers from one of the ships in port. No idea why. They fled out of here in a hurry, all madder than hell. Nobody killed, but that’s almost an accident.”
“But where did they go?” Parsons inquired.
Oatmeal shrugged. “Not my business. Excuse me. I got to try and clean up before the next shift change.”
Parsons frowned. Lord Thomas must have an explanation for this affray. He examined his viewpad for messages. To his irritation, the device did not connect to the local Infogrid. He tried turning it on and off. The response was no better. He hit the side of the device with the palm of his hand. No change. He ran a diagnostic test to find the fault, and discovered that it was not the fault of the viewpad. Interference of some kind was blocking the signal. He scanned the busy street for a land-based communicator. A short row of booths stood a short distance away. Parsons signed on and signaled Lord Thomas’s viewpad. There was no answer. It seemed that whatever was causing his to fail also affected other wireless communications. He asked the system to be connected to the office of the station manager.
“Yeah?” asked a burly, lavender-furred Wichu when the call was opened.
“I am Commander Parsons. Do you know the whereabouts of the Smithereen Militia?”
The Wichu eyed him up and down. “Ain’t you in charge of it?”
“Nominally,” Parsons said.
“Listen, buddy, we’ve got major outages springing up all over the place, thanks to the magnetite spill in the loading zone. And we just got a report of a riot in a restaurant on the main street. Why don’t you just go outside and holler for them? The wireless links ought to be up in an hour or so.”
“Sir, you don’t understand the urgency of this matter,” Parsons began. “I believe that they were involved in an armed conflict. I am concerned for their safety.”
An alarm went off behind the Wichu, who spun his chair to answer it. He turned back to Parsons. “Listen, I got more problems to handle than you. If you find the militia, tell ’em that we need ’em. You got that?” The screen went blank.
Something nudged Parsons in the shoulder. Undoubtedly, another patron deprived of wireless signal sought to make use of one of the few public land-line booths. Without looking back, he held up a hand asking for patience.
Parsons reentered the request to the communications system. It let out a two-tone hum that sounded like a human being clearing its throat in boredom, but it brought up the correct connection. The Wichu saw his face, and snapped his furry fist down on his console. The screen went blank.
That wouldn’t do. Perturbed, Parsons brought up the station map on his viewpad. He would go to the office and demand help in person. Lord Thomas must be located.
He was nudged again. This time he turned and presented an apologetic smile.
“I beg your pardon. I needed . . .”
No one was there. No living being, at least. Instead, an orb the size of a pool ball hovered and blinked at eye level. It was his lordship’s Optique camera. It bumped him in the shoulder again, urgently.
Swift as thought, Parsons shot out a hand for the small device. Instead of eluding him as it normally did, it held still for the capture. Parsons opened his palm. The Optique hummed loudly. A circuit pattern of thin lines of light went on all over the small device, and a blue beam lanced out to trace his face. A streak of red on the camera’s surface lit up, and a brilliant beam projected itself upon the nearest solid surface, which happened to be the backside of a very large, yellow Croctoid female in black coveralls. An image three meters by two coalesced. It showed Lord Thomas’s face at a very close angle in a dimly lit room. The Croctoid, who had been window-shopping with her spouse, began to move away. He put out a hand and touched her forearm. She looked up at him, startled.
“Will you stand just there for a moment, madam?” he asked politely.
“Get stuffed!” she roared, her beady eyes narrowed dangerously.
“Take your hands off my wife!” the other Croctoid demanded. He was much taller and narrower, and looked as though he could tear the communications booth out of the wall. He breasted up to Parsons and glared down at him.
“Please,” Parsons said, withdrawing his touch. “It’s a matter of Imperium security.” He gave them his most authoritative mien. The male halted. The female gave him a puzzled smile. “Turn this way, please.” She rotated so her broad front made the widest possible screen.
“Replay,” he ordered the camera.
Lord Thomas’s face peered at him, slightly distorted from his proximity to the lens. Parsons heard crashing noises around him. Lord Thomas glanced back over his shoulder. Parsons saw a handful of other figures, difficult to distinguish in the available light. The walls around him appeared to be midnight blue in color, or perhaps black. A loud bang as if a solid object had been vaporized with an energy weapon came from nearby. Lord Thomas lifted his hands and began to weave his fingers together in a complicated dance.
Parsons could understand Sang Li fingerspelling as quickly as if it was clear print, and fortunately, so could his charge. For all his apparent inattention to his duties, Lord Thomas picked up information like a sponge, including the silent communication system that was used by the service when sound was not possible, for example in the vacuum of space.
“Pirate vessel from reports is on this station,” the young man spelled out. The scene changed suddenly to show the image of a ship as seen from below. It was an excellent picture, showing an expanse of enamel cracked off a tail fin of a cargo ship to reveal more enameling underneath. Parsons frowned. He did not recognize the emblem of the damaged part, but he did recall the second, hidden design. That was the logo of a haulage corporation who had reported ships missing after an altercation with illicit vehicles. The details of the report in question came to his memory immediately. The boy was right. But what was going on?
Thomas’s face returned. “No one knows it but us. I didn’t know where you went, so we could not contact you directly. Magnetite, you know. We attempted to apprehend the crew, but it’s gone rather badly . . .” The modifier of the adverb was signed with an apologetic grimace. “We have the pirates confined to the ballroom of the hotel, but it isn’t going exactly as I planned.”
Another bombardment shook the room around Lord Thomas.
He leaned close, his face distorted by the lens, and whispered. “We’re holding out for now, but come soon. Please. The Optique will lead you to us. Kinago out.”
More shouted threats were audible in the background. Parsons winced.
The image vanished, and the red light on the small camera dulled. Parsons put the camera in his pocket.
How brave, yet how foolhardy. The boy’s instincts were sound ones, but he lacked finesse of execution. One day he might be able to capture and control an entire enemy force on his own, but not yet. He needed help. Whether or not the authorities of this outpost wished to be involved, they had no choice now. Parsons thanked the Croctoid couple and went to find the authorities. He broke into a run in the direction of the station office.
The offices of the station manager, a former warehouse by the look of the bare metal ribs of the ceiling, were in chaos. Many of the dozens of screens on walls and transparent standards around the room were dark, a sign that the magnetic interference had not yet cleared. Screens attached to hardwired installations were filled with angry, shouting faces. The operational staff was clearly too small to cope with the emergencies, though under the circumstances, this type of interruption must occur often. Parsons made a mental note to pass along to the Interior Ministry as he advanced upon the lavender-furred Wichu at the desk at the center of the room.
“Whaddaya want?” it asked Parsons. It waved a dismissive paw. “Never mind; you’re not gonna get it. We’re busy.”
“You will have to cooperate with me,” Parsons insisted.
“Sez who?” the Wichu asked.
“The Emperor.” Parsons produced his credentials. The fur around the Wichu’s eyes curled back, revealing nearly all of the round black orbs.
“Steeeed!” he bellowed.
* * *
Steed, the station manager, a tall man who had once been powerfully built until age and gravity had dragged him down, toyed anxiously with his graying mustache as Parsons, seated calmly in the midst of a crowd consisting of nearly all the management staff plus friends who had heard about it and come to see the excitement, waited through the protocols of Wedjet’s security cycling on the largest screen in the office. When the seal of the Imperium appeared, they all let out an appreciative “Oooh.” The image of Admiral Podesta, looking as choleric as usual, took its place.
His eyebrows rose at the sight of Parsons. “Well, Commander? What is the meaning of this . . . crowd?”
Parsons was unperturbed. “Sir, I wish to report the sighting and attempted capture of a party of dangerous beings who have allegedly hijacked and modified a spaceship for their own use, the alleged crimes believed to be that of piracy in the civilized lanes of space. They have damaged personal and public property, harassed and insulted citizens of the Imperium, and falsified vital credentials.”
Podesta peered at him askance. “With you involved, Commander, I scarcely expect to hear the phrase ‘attempted capture.’ What other factor is involved here?”
“Ensign Kinago, sir,” Parsons said. Podesta groaned, and his ramrod-straight shoulders sagged a fraction.
“What has that fool boy done now?”
“It is not entirely his fault, Admiral,” Parsons said smoothly. “The matter would have been difficult under any circumstances. The Smithereen militia, whom you had tasked him with inspecting, has put itself under his command to fulfill fleet directive number PN-06-752. He sought to bring the suspects in for questioning. They, er, resisted.”
“Hence the ‘damaged personal and public property,’ ” Podesta said. He sighed. “It was not successful?”
“No, sir. The militia has the force of numbers, but the enemy force had access to undeclared weapons, putting the lives of naval personnel and civilians in jeopardy. Ensign Kinago has done what he must to prevent the loss of life. At this time I request immediate assistance by the Wedjet to speed to this location to secure the suspects and prevent any further altercations.”
Podesta’s right brow drew so far down it almost obscured his eye. “What about the station manager? Stallion? Where is he in all this?”
“Steed, sir,” that official said, edging into the view of the video pickup with a tentative finger raised.
“Well?” Podesta demanded. “Why haven’t you arrested these pirates? How has it suddenly become the responsibility of the navy to police your corridors?”
Steed sputtered and stammered, but no coherent words came out. Parsons intervened smoothly.
“They have . . . not interfered, sir. I think you will find from a brief perusal of the station logs that there have been overwhelming technical difficulties that have prevented Mr. Steed from taking personal charge of the matter. His cooperation with the Imperium was never in question, of course. He is most concerned about the presence of known felons in the station. There is little time to be lost, Admiral. Ensign Kinago’s efforts have been heroic, but we must move to supplement them immediately.”
An appreciative murmur came from the crowd around him, possibly in admiration of the verbal aikido he had performed. To the relief of the Smithereen bureaucracy, Podesta’s mood had shifted from angry to concerned.
“We are within nine hours of rendezvous point, Commander. Thank you for the report. Can Ensign Kinago hold out until then?”
“He will, sir,” Parsons assured him.
“Well, thank the stars for that. Can’t let the First Space Lord’s fool of a son get killed, dammit, no matter how richly he deserves it. Podesta out.”
The screen went blank. Parsons looked up from the screen. Station Manager Steed cleared his throat a little sheepishly.
“What do you need, Commander? We’ll do anything we can to help, uh, bring these felons to justice. On behalf of the Imperium, y’know. Um, long live the Emperor.”
“Long live the Emperor,” the rest of the employees murmured, more or less in unison.
Parsons suppressed a smile. Praise for the staff, or at least downplaying their uncooperative attitude, would urge them to work hard to gain the approval that had been ceded in advance. Best to call upon all of their resources while they were still feeling grateful, before natural resentment set in.
“Please show me the blueprints for the security systems in and around the grand hotel. Fire control, life support, hidden weapons emplacements, access routes—a full breakout of the plans and updates.”
“You heard the man!” Steed shouted. “Security access nine-ought-alpha, go! Y’want coffee, Commander? Something stronger? I got some Chochlean rotgut in my desk. Last year’s vintage.”
“Not yet, Mr. Steed,” Parsons said, as the icons began to muster on the screen before him. He placed his hands on the control panel. “I hope stimulants will not become necessary.”